“It won’t be long now.” In the distance, the sound of sirens slowly grew nearer. They didn’t have all that far to go; what was taking so long? John stood silhouetted against the window, one hand holding back the lacy curtain as he watched out the window for the first flashes of red and white emergency lights. Glancing into the room over his shoulder, he jerked his chin at Mike. “Still hanging in there?”
Mike grunted, breathing too hard to say anything, but he didn’t stop the chest compressions, either.
John looked back out the window. Finally, a fire truck appeared in the distance. “Time to go,” he said.
“Thank god,” Mike gasped. He stood up, bending over with his hands on his knees for a moment before straightening. He left the prostrate body of the old lady motionless on the floor. Its pulse had stilled long ago. “Got the stuff?”
John lifted the backpack in his other hand. He let the curtain drop back into place. “Make sure there’s no sign.”
Mike rolled his eyes and stalked away towards the back door. He was a man of few words. John followed swiftly, long legs crossing the diminutive parlor in moments. The backpack he swung onto his back as he followed Mike through the kitchen, unchanged since its original decoration in 1955, and out through the clanging screen door into the wilted back yard. A few weeds pushed their way through the cracked cement patio, and the wind blew some leaves skittering across the barren yard.
Mae Ellen Johnston may have been 93 ½ years old, as she never hesitated to remind willing and unwilling listeners alike, but she wasn’t stupid. She remembered the Great Depression and wouldn’t waste a penny on any unnecessary or frivolous expense. She lived comfortably with appliances that worked exactly as they had for the last 60 years, driving the same 25-year-old car on her weekly pilgrimage to church. Her great-grandchildren had tried time and again to stop her driving, but she wasn’t one to give up such freedoms lightly. No, sir! She remembered well the fight her mother’s generation had to get the vote, and Mae Ellen wasn’t about to give up one single hard-won privilege, even if she endangered and terrified all the other citizens of the village on the way.
Now, of course, she was long past caring about her rights or privileges, thanks to the two “gentlemen” who had come to share with her some important news about changes to her Social Security benefits.
It was an undignified end for an exceptional life.
“Mae, wait up!” Carefully coiffed hair bobbed as Mae’s best friend, Anne, broke into a swift trot to catch up with Mae. She clutched a thick book to her chest as she hurried along.
“Hurry up, then! We’re going to be late!” Mae called over her shoulder. She whipped a mirror out and checked her face just as Anne arrived at her side. They could hear the sound of the bus as it labored up the hill towards its stop at the summit. “I don’t want to miss the show.”
“Because Gerald is in it,” Anne’s voice rose into a mocking sing-song despite her rapid trot up the hill. “And you’re sweet on Gerald.”
Mae tossed her head and huffed, but didn’t deny the charge. Of course, nearly all the girls in their class had an eye on Gerald; he was seventeen, a year older than Mae, and surely a rising star. Captain of the football team, a glittering smile and broad shoulders coupled with an easygoing good nature and unexpected intelligence – well, who wouldn’t fall for such a paragon? It was too much to miss the opportunity to see him in the school play. Rumor had it that he even took off his shirt in one scene. Mae didn’t credit the rumor, but wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to find out for herself.
It didn’t take long after the high school theater lights dimmed to determine that Gerald wasn’t cut out for the silver screen, but Mae willingly overlooked his acting foibles. He looked perfectly dashing in his cavalier’s costume, epaulettes glittering and flashing in the stage lights. Mae sighed with happiness.
Beside her, Anne quietly turned the page of her book. She’d chosen their seats, near the front, to be closest to reflected light from the stage, a decision to which Mae concurred wholeheartedly, if for entirely different reasons.
Afterward, Gerald was, of course, swarmed with admirers. Mae and Anne stood to the side, watching the crowd of sycophants cooing over their hero. “You’d think they didn’t have anything better to do than go gaga over him,” Mae muttered. Anne emitted an unladylike snort.
“And what exactly would you say you’re doing, then?” she asked, clearly rhetorically.
“Planning my attack,” Mae answered unnecessarily, blue eyes narrowed in speculative evaluation. “If you were really my best friend, you’d help me figure out how to get his attention. Come on,” she wheedled, “it’d be a good puzzle.”
Anne glanced at the crowd appraisingly, never one to pass up an intellectual challenge. “He’s supposed to be pretty smart, right?”
“What does he think of the Sudetenland situation, then? Is Germany a threat? Will the United States break neutrality if it comes to war in Europe? Ask him about that, and I bet he’ll have some thoughts,” Anne offered. “The rest of that crowd has never even heard of Czechoslovakia. You’ll for sure get his attention.”
Now it was Mae’s turn to scoff. “Come on,” she groaned, rolling her eyes, “That’s dull as ditchwater adult stuff. Who cares about that? It won’t have anything to do with us, anyway.”
“Want to bet?” Anne asked, perking up.
“No, I want to go talk with that dreamboat,” Mae replied, whipping out her mirror again.
“You look gorgeous, of course,” Anne sighed, not even looking Mae’s way. But a glance in the mirror confirmed that Anne was right. Mae did look gorgeous, and she’d look even nicer on Gerald’s arm promenading down the hall of their high school. She just had to find some way to differentiate herself from the rest of those fawning airheads.
~ ~ ~
Much later, Mae’s Father arrived at the hospital. He looked thunderous, even more so than usual, which was saying something.
The ambulance crew had refused to allow Anne along with them, and a glance at Mae, who’d quickly shaken her head, encouraged Anne to fall back without protest. Yet somehow Gerald had sweet-talked his way into the back, where he had gallantly held Mae’s hand and distracted her with stories of his growing-up on his grandparents’ wheat farm in rural Kansas while the doctors set her leg.
“Well?” Father asked, voice stern. “What’s all this?”
Gerald stood quickly. “My name is Gerald Smith, sir, and I’m a friend of Mae’s from school. I was there when the car hit her.”
Father eyed him appraisingly. “A friend, eh?” He turned to Mae. “We’ll talk about this later, young lady. First we get you home.”
“Father, the doctors said—”
“Quiet!” Father exploded. Not loudly, but swift and low, like a coffee table to the shins in the middle of the night.
“But, sir—” Gerald raised a hand, trying to intercede. Mae kept her grimace inside, biting her tongue.
“YOU stay out of this,” Father growled at Gerald, “And YOU” he turned back to Mae, “we’re going now. What do those charlatans and quacks know, besides taking all my hard-earned money? I’m taking you home and we’ll talk about the rest of it later.”